Consumer Desire in Three Cultures: Results From Projective Research

ABSTRACT - Using collages, story-telling, sentence completion, word associations, and other projective techniques, we investigated the nature of consumer desire among students in the United States, Turkey, and Denmark. While we detected some cultural differences, gender differences were generally stronger and tended to be similar across the three cultures. Desire is primarily interpersonal, but it’s interpersonal nature differs between men and women. For both men and women however, consumer desire is an intensely passionate positive emotional experience steeped in fantasies and dreams rather than an experience involving reasoned judgments. Desires are also dangerous, both because they are often transgressive and because they threaten a loss of control. We further found a cycle of desire in which, either because desire has been rationalized or realized, it is tamed and must be revitalized through developing new foci.


Russell W. Belk, Gnliz Ger, and S°ren Askegaard (1997) ,"Consumer Desire in Three Cultures: Results From Projective Research", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, eds. Merrie Brucks and Deborah J. MacInnis, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 24-28.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, 1997      Pages 24-28


Russell W. Belk, University of Utah

Gnliz Ger, Bilkent University

S°ren Askegaard, Odense University


Using collages, story-telling, sentence completion, word associations, and other projective techniques, we investigated the nature of consumer desire among students in the United States, Turkey, and Denmark. While we detected some cultural differences, gender differences were generally stronger and tended to be similar across the three cultures. Desire is primarily interpersonal, but it’s interpersonal nature differs between men and women. For both men and women however, consumer desire is an intensely passionate positive emotional experience steeped in fantasies and dreams rather than an experience involving reasoned judgments. Desires are also dangerous, both because they are often transgressive and because they threaten a loss of control. We further found a cycle of desire in which, either because desire has been rationalized or realized, it is tamed and must be revitalized through developing new foci.


This paper is part of an on-going multi-method multi-ultural study by the authors into the nature of consumer desire. As discussed in an earlier paper exploring metaphors of consumer desire in English, Turkish, Danish, and French (Belk, Ger, and Askegaard 1996), desires are seldom mentioned in the consumer behavior literature, and are generally either trivialized as wants or naturalized as needs. But we contend that desires are instead belief-based passions that involve longing, yearning, and fervently wishing for something. In our earlier work we found that three of the most widely used metaphors for characterizing consumer desire are hunger (or thirst), sexual lust, and addiction. We may speak of hungering for, lusting after, or craving certain consumer goods as if they were delicious foods, alluring sexual mates, or addictive drugs. It is this intensity of feeling toward objects of our desire that we wish to better understand.

We believe that current approaches to human motivation in general and consumer motivation in particular are limited through their instrumental and utilitarian use of ubiquitous need satisfaction models. Such perspectives not only miss much of the rich symbolic meanings of consumer goods, but also neglect the essentially emotional manner in which consumers may well relate to these goods. By focusing on consumer motivation as a mental process, we as consumer researchers have studied what may often be verbal rationalizations of behaviors that derive from a more emotional and corporeal basis. This is the message of a great deal recent theorizing about consumption (e.g., Coward 1984; Falk 1994; Featherstone 1991; Firat and Venkatesh 19995; Joy and Venkatesh 1994; Lupton 1996). Whereas a view of consumers as information processors implies that mass media and advertising provide information about products and that consumers transform this information into implicit calculations of the need satisfying abilities of certain bundles of attributes, a focus on desire and the body opens other possibilities. By viewing consumers as having desiring bodies and minds, we may be able to better appreciate the largely neglected role of myth, fantasy, and imagination in consumption (e.g., Berger 1991; Budd, Craig, and Steinman 1983; Crisp 1987; Levy 1986; Rook 1988).

In order to achieve this potential and to begin to learn about the nature of consumer desire, traditional methods of both qualitative and quantitative research may be limited. They are simply not well suited to eliciting consumer fantasies or forthright and revealing characterizations of consumer desire. Since we are interested in better understanding the nature of consumer desire, we turned to a number of projective methods in this phase of our research. Such methods have recently proven useful in a variety of consumer research contexts in which more direct questioning methods fail to capture an adequate understanding of consumer behavior processes and consumption symbolism (e.g., Branthwaite and Lunn 1985; Gordon and Langmaid 1988; McGrath, Sherry, and Levy 1993; McWilliam and Dumas 1985; Sherry, McGrath, and Levy 1992, 1993, 1995; Zaltman 1995; Zaltman and Coulter 1995; Zaltman and Higie 1993; Zaltman and Schuck 1995; Zaltman, Zaltman, Crameri, Finkle, and Randel 1995).


Informants were graduate and undergraduate students at the three universities of the authors. The American students in Salt Lake City consisted of 16 women and 22 men. The Turkish students in Ankara were 13 women and 16 men. And the Danish students in Odense were 9 women and 8 men. The exercise was completed in class as part of a demonstration of projective methods. There were 10 parts to the exercise, completed in the following order:

1. Collage: Using a variety of popular agazines from the country of the study (some supplied by the students and others brought by the researchers) students cut out any material they wished and constructed a collage expressing the concept of desire. They were encouraged to let themselves go and express their feelings, intuitions, imaginings, fantasies, and associations. Following their completion of their collage they wrote down interpretations, logical or not, of what it represents.

2. Associations: Informants were asked to imagine swimming in a sea of things (objects, experiences, people) that bring them the greatest pleasure. They identified these things and described the sensations they imagined having in this context.

3. Fairy tale: Everyone wrote a fairy tale in which someone experiences great suffering, but in the end finds great happiness. They were asked to describe the setting, the central character, the source of their suffering, and the source of their final happiness.

4. Antonyms: Informants listed states that they regarded to be the opposite of desire.

5. Antonym Objects: Students named things toward which they feel the opposite of desire and described their feelings about these things.

6. Metaphoric Portraits: Informants were asked to name or describe anything that came to mind when trying to imagine 1) desire and 2) the opposite of desire, as:

a. a taste

b. a smell

c. a color

d. a shape

e. a texture/feel/touch

f. a sound

g. an emotion.

7. Sketches: People were told to imagine that they were artists who had been given commissions to create two artworks to be called "Desire" and "Not Desire." They were told to sketch the works they envisioned and to add any interpretation that might be useful in understanding these sketches.

8. Desires versus Wants: Students were asked to give an example of an object, experience, or person X that Person A desires and Person B wants. They were then asked to describe how each of these two people feels about X and how their behaviors might differ as a result.

9. Synonyms: Informants were asked to name an object, experience, or person X that they desire and to list as many words or phrases as they can that might be used in the blank in the sentence "I ______ X."

10. Synonym Examples and Feelings: People were asked to name some things a person might strongly desire and for each one to describe the feelings a person might have about it 1) before they get it, 2) at the moment they get it, and 3) after they get it.

Questions and responses were in English, Turkish, and Danish, as appropriate to each country. They were analyzed independently by the author for whom this was a native language. In addition, a multinational group of students completed the exercise in English at INSEAD in Fontainebleu, France, where English is the lingua franca. These responses are not analyzed here, but were examined by all three authors in an effort to detect our own analytical differences. In addition, we reconsidered our interpretations of the informants from our own countries after seeing the interpretations of the other authors in their countries. We were attentive to differences that emerged by country, by gender of the informant, and by type of projective measure. The following results are a summary of the findings that evolved from this iterative process.


In general there were stronger gender differences than cultural differences, with a high degree of convergence across cultures and type of projective exercise. Therefore, for the sake of clarity and brevity, we present the results by topic, noting differences by gender, culture, and exercise type where there are systematic differences.

Desire is a Positive Emotional State

While there are some states of desire that are negative in character, desire is depicted overwhelmingly as a positive emotion. This is seen in collages that show exotic, luxurious, and desirable persons, places, and things as well as associations of desire in these collages with sexual longing, hunger for delicious foods and beverages, and as dreams, fantasies, and intriguing departures from the ordinary and everyday. In collages and synonyms, desire is depicted as fun, exhilarating, passionate, imaginative, romantic, hopeful, and empowering. It is seen in the antonyms which characterize non-desire in either negative terms (hatred, loathing, disgust, fear) or in terms of apathy, indifference, laziness, lacking in motivation, and being without future goals to strive for. As one American man put it, "Apathy destroys the core of the individual, while controlled desire guides us to success." However for some, especially Danish, informants, the notion of controlling desire was itself oxymoronic, for desire was seen as wild, impassioned, and incapable of total control. When it was controlled in the sense of being tamed or civilized, some suggested that a surrogate or alternate source of less controlled desire was substituted as a new object for desire. This is examined more completely in a theme discussed below.

The metaphors and sketches of desire and its opposite also emphasize the positive emotional character of desire. It is depicted as sweet, fragrant, red (passionate, hot), round, smooth, soft, silky, gentle sounding (e.g., surf), loving and peaceful, whereas its opposite is depicted as sour, rotten, or bland, black or gray, angular, coarse, loud and harsh, and hateful, angry, or sad. Compared to wanting, desire was consistently characterized as more intense, profound, and powerfully motivating. Because it has to do with fantasies and the imaginary it takes on a somewhat mystical, childish, and surprising quality that appears quite antithetical to reasoned calculation. The synonym of worship may come closest to capturing this aspect of desire. The highly positive characterizations of desire are consistent with contentions of Campbell (1987, p. 86) that desire is a state of enjoyable frustration and longing, and of Lefebvre (1991, p. 394) that we have a "desire for desire." Thus perhaps it is not surprising that Santa Claus and Christmas showed up in several of the American desire collages.

Desire is Interpersonal

The interpersonal character of desire was especially emphasized in the sea of things associations and the fairy tales, and was present in collages as well. The things depicted in the sea of desire were overwhelmingly peopleCfamily, friends, loved onesCin all three countries. For males these people were sometimes nude females. These people or inanimate (generally luxury) objects in the sea of desire were described as providing feelings of being supported, soothed, loved, excited, and sexually aroused. Sometimes they also resulted in feelings of beauty, joy, freedom, peace, comfort, relaxation, harmony, warmth, and fond memories. The womb-like quality of some of these feeling states may however be related to the sea context as well as the desire context. In fairy tales both the sources of problems and the basis for their resolution were more often people than material conditions.

Often in the fairy tales there was a transformation of the central character and his or her conditions resulting in gaining greater acceptance, success, recognition, or control of his or her future. These are stries of a desire realized, either through personal action or the action of other people. In either case, the results (and implicitly what is beneath specific focal desires) involve an improved interpersonal situation. There is some tendency in the U.S. for men to frame interpersonal issues of desire more in terms of competition, power, and mastery, and for women to frame these issues more in terms of love, comfort, and relationships. That desire should be largely interpersonal is consistent with Lacan’s (1977) contention that the fundamental human desire underlying all other desires is to fill a lack or an incompleteness that we feel in our selves by turning to an other. That is, the Lacanian formula specifies that desire is always desire for the Other (Leather 1983).

Desire and Desired Objects Differ Between Men and Women

In collages as well as illustrations of things wanted in response to questions 8 and 10, men and women tended to focus on differing objects of desire. While both sexes focused desires on luxury cars, trucks, and motorcycles, males were more likely to do so. Both sexes also focused on other people as objects of desire, but in quite distinct ways. Men were more likely to use attractive, nude, or scantily clad women in their collages and examples. Women were more likely to depict man-woman couples and specify relationships as the interpersonal objects of their desire. That is, men tended to desire women as objects, whereas women were more likely to desire on-going relationships. This objectification versus personalization was also evident in specifications and depictions of non-desire where men cited types of people they hate (e.g., lazy or dishonest people, fat women) whereas women cited problematic interpersonal relationships more often (e.g., being lonely, being treated badly). For women, these and other instances of non-desire were often internalized (e.g., being fat, being mean, being cold and dirty), whereas for men sources of non-desire were more often external in origin (e.g., listening to opera, Mormon church meetings, bills).

Other objects of desire that emerged with greater frequency for women were homes, furnishings, and foodCespecially chocolates. Sweets in general (Coward 1984; Mintz 1986; Willis 1991) and chocolates in particular (Barthel 1989, Lupton 1996) have long been associated with women, romance, luxury, reward, indulgence, decadence, and sensuality. Recognizing this temptation, men have traditionally used gifts of chocolate as part of the courtship ritual. And Otnes and McGrath (1994) found in studying three- to five-year-old children’s birthday rituals that girls were especially enamored of being able to eat anything they wanted on their birthdays; something the authors attributed to the stronger normal taboo against girls eating and gaining weight. At the same time, we also find that both men and women expressed desires to appear attractiveCwomen through slender bodies, new clothes, and perfumes, and men through muscular bodies, cars, and other symbols of status.

Desire Can Be Dangerous

In interpreting their collages, American women sometimes described certain desires for such things as dessert foods, chocolates, sex, and alcohol as being not only decadent and indulgent, but sinful. This is closer to Bataille’s (1991) notions of desire as transgression and as potentially involving guilty pleasures. Notions of transgression were evident in Turkey as well, but framed as matters of imbalance and a lack of control rather than sin and guilt. We see here the dangerous nature of desires and the tensions between control and non-control, pleasure and victimization, and rationality and animality (id drives). Desire is seen by many as something that must be controlled, but ironically this very control tames the desire and robs it of its power and passion; the thrill is gone. This may in turn lead to a new, reintensified desire (see the following section). Desire is thus potentially a Damocles’ sword. Itcan lead us to great pleasure, but we are inevitably balancing on the edge of falling victim to the uncontrollable character of our transgressive desires.

For one Turkish man this transgressive character was expressed by the dirty smells inhaled by a cartoon rat in a toilet. Another man’s collage showed the police photos of Hugh Grant and Divine Brown after they were picked up for an act of public fellatio. And another showed the actor John Malkovich from the film version of "Liason Dangereux" and explained it as "passion running after pleasure." Desires derive their power through their affiliation with our "animal" selfCour id or unconscious drives. Some described this is childish in the sense of not having inhibitions. Desire was also often seen to come about by surprise rather than through conscious planning. Because of their transgressive animal character we must rationalize and socialize these desires in order to find socially acceptable expressions of this power. But doing so diminishes the basic power of the desire and a search for new thrills ensues that may well lead to new revitalized desires.

The fear of loss of control is also evident in some expressions of the addictive potential of compulsive desire. One Turkish drawing of desire represented this by showing a person caught in the middle of a large spider web. Part of the interpretation offered was that "People want lots of things, as if our lives are based on these desires. Some of these desires we can reach, others we cannot. Our lives go by in efforts to reach them. As we reach them, we fall prey to new desires. Our desires sometimes enslave us." Or as a Danish informant put it, "It is an obsession, you don’t control it."

There is a Cycle of Desire

The final projective question asked informants to describe a person’s feelings before, during, and after getting something that is strongly desired. The feelings described for the before state were predominantly positive, although they were more mixed (positive and negative) where the desired object was another person. At the moment of acquisition, feelings were almost uniformly positive (either active emotions such as excited, joyful, and thrilled or more passive positive emotions such as relaxed, content, and relieved). In addition, the emotions during acquisition were sometimes indicated victory, as if a battle had been waged and won (success, triumph, arrogance, accomplishment, pride). These victorious reactions were more common for women upon acquiring a desired lover, and were more common for men upon acquiring possessions (e.g., a car), states of being (e.g., fitness), or goals for which the person had worked long and hard (e.g., an MBA degree).

Perhaps most interesting of the three focal points is the "after" state. Here the most common description of feelings was negative: worry, burdened, sad, scared, let down, disrespectful, unappreciative, discouraged, frustrated, unsure, bored, exhausted, disappointed, jealous, broke, anxious, fearing loss, confused, lazy, empty, without goals, remorseful, having lost interest, regret, or needing something more. More positive (and often passive) emotions were associated with experiences like travel and sex and after realizing desires to have a child or a lover (e.g., reflective, content, calm). With boyfriends and girlfriends there were still some negative reactions however. A number of informants described being briefly happy with the newly acquired and formerly desired object, and then becoming bored, indifferent, and anxious to turn to a new source of desire. This cycle of desire accords well with Colin Campbell’s (1987) description of contemporary hedonism. A similar cycle of desire has been used to explain high divorce rates today (Barnett and Magdoff 1986). And this cycle suggests again that the thrill lies more in the desire than it does in its realization.


Using a variety of projective methods we find similar notions of desire across three cultures that are distant from one another. We find that desire is a positive emotional state and that non-desire is an empty or negative state of being. We passionately desire the luxurious, the exotic, the Other. We desire something thought to be capable of totally transforming us and our lives through magic. Perhaps this was best depicted in an American woman’s collage that highlighted Cinderella’s glass slipper. At the same time, desire is interpersonal. Whether in a competitive invidious sense of desiring more and better things than others or in the sense of wanting approval and love from others, our desires are not simply person-thing relationships; they inevitably involve other people.

We also find that men and women differ in the nature and focus of their desires. The men studied are more likely to desire cars and women as sex objects. The women studied are more likely to desire homes, food, and relationships with men. These women see sweet foods in general and chocolates in particular as being indulgent, decadent, and sometimes sinful. This also exemplifies the transgressive and dangerous nature of desire. Desires are dangerous because they transgress the ordinary and verge on the socially outrageous. A part of the allure is this transgressive character. Because of the danger of losing control to desire and of appearing obsessed, we may try to civilize and rationalize these desires so that they appear more socially acceptable. But ironically, doing so robs the desire of its mystical power and leads us to new desires. A similar sequence of rising, waning, and renewing desire was found in the cycle that is involved in desiring, obtaining, and becoming bored with objects, leading to revitalizing desire through new focal objects.

In a word, what we have learned is that the passionate and positive emotional basis for desire is hope. Crawford (1994, pp. 112-113) tells the ancient Jewish tale of a rich man who, knowing his riches will be of no value to him when he dies, seeks to give his fortune to someone who has abandoned all hope. He finds a man in rags and bestows the riches upon him. But rather than gratitude, the man replies that the gift is the opposite of kindness and is more like death. For "only the dead are without hope." Rather than paraphrase this tale and suggest that only the dead are without desire, we prefer to turn it around: to desire is to hope, to hope is to live.


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Russell W. Belk, University of Utah
Gnliz Ger, Bilkent University
S°ren Askegaard, Odense University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24 | 1997

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